Monday, March 09, 2009

PlainViews Article

This article is from A newsletter for chaplains out of the U.S.

Taming the Cell Phone — Benefits and Burdens in the Critical Care Setting

Rev. Peggy Muncie

They buzz, they beep, and they sing our favorite songs. They tell us who is calling and sometimes even why. We need them to stay in instant touch. We live in the age of the cell phone, BlackBerry, mp3 phone and who knows what will come next.

We are a long way from the wild dreams of my pre-teen years when I imagined the best thing in the world would be a phone in our car when I could then pass the time with friends as I was toted on errands and also to inform them of the teen gossip I had witnessed. Back then a car phone was luxury personified.

In 1990, I won a car phone! Granted it was about the size of a shoe box, but I was a proud mobile communicator. The phone enabled me to keep tabs on home and hospital; my family and my co-workers could reach me in times of need. I even indulged in chatting hands-free with my friends on long drives.

In the last twenty years mobile technology has exploded. There is a device in nearly every pocket, spanning the generations from grade school to gerontology.

Recently, I’ve witnessed the impact of cellular communication in the critical care hospital setting. I am troubled by what I see happening. Does it bring people together and help family and friends support each other in time of crisis? Or is it a diversion and distraction from being present to the feelings of the moment?

What has led me to write about this? On a Friday evening at 11:50 PM, a twenty-seven-year-old Hispanic male was brought by friends to the ER. He had been the victim of a street corner shooting in the neighborhood and was bleeding profusely. He was intubated, stabilized and prepared for surgery.

My pager rang at 12:04 AM. “A young male was shot. He is on the way to surgery. It doesn’t look good. The family is gathering, please come and offer support.” When I arrived at the hospital at 12:35 AM, a crowd of 25 people was present.

Seeking out the key family members I inquired, “How may I help?”

“Find out what is going on,” was their response.

As the family held vigil, the progress of surgery was monitored. The crowd grew. Five more people, then three more, then ten more arrived. As the anxious hours passed there was never a time in meeting with, listening to and praying alongside the growing family that there was NOT the buzz of a BlackBerry or jingle of a cell phone.

At 3:15 AM, the surgical resident arrived and asked me to escort the significant persons to the ICU waiting lounge, where the attending surgeon wanted to share the patient’s status. Even in the small square of the elevator the three key women were fielding cellular calls.

In the ICU lounge the surgical team painted a very critical and guarded picture. He was out of surgery. “The bleeding was nearly impossible to control. He required massive units of blood, as the bullet’s path injured a major artery. The next 12 hours are critical. In a few minutes he will be ready for you to see him,” said the surgeon. Prayer and hope-filled tension permeated the room; yet, so did the sound of the cell phone’s omnipresent ring spreading the anxious news.

Soon the family was escorted to be bedside. When we entered, the bleeding was again uncontrolled, blood pressure was dropping, and a code was called. The family spoke words of love and encouragement and prayed to the Almighty for life to be sustained. Still the noise of the cell phones were there among the commands of the code and the unique sounds of the ICU at 3:45 AM.

God and the patient heard the words of encouragement and love; yet, the random violence of the streets prevailed; life left this young man at 4:17 AM. A child of five was now fatherless.

The lead surgeon with compassion and sensitivity shared the message, “Your son and your husband has died. We were not able to save his life. We offered him everything we knew. We are extremely sorry. Please let us know if there is anything we can do.” Tears, shouts, sobs, the physical expressions of painful disbelief and grief overwhelmed this small room. So did the sound of the cell phone.

The family then poured into the room to spend time, to have their personal farewell, to come and see, to touch and feel, to know that in the last few hours a brother, a cousin, a godchild, a stepchild, a buddy, a childhood companion, a friend, had died. The family and friends came in twos and threes, in fives and sixes and as they came, they called and text messaged others. For two hours the mourners came to turn their disbelief into the reality of mourning. By 6:30 AM, there were probably about 100 persons bidding him goodbye.

How did the news travel so fast? What brought so many family, friends and neighbors to the hospital? What was this instrument of connection? What was it that persistently permeated the tears and wails of grief? What was it that drove family from the intensity of the moment to the sound of the familiar? The Cell. The BlackBerry. That was it. How do we tame this beast so it does not to draw those we care for from the intensity of the moment?

On planes, in movie theaters, in spas, in houses of worship, we silence our cellular devices. We stay present to the moment. In this practice of ministry the cell phone and the dilemma it presents is a phenomena that is encroaching on being pervasive.

This is a call I issue to my colleagues: Is it right to tame this technology at times such as these? Where lays the answer between the benefit and the burden of this means of instant communication in the critical care setting? How do we as caregivers help establish policy that keeps loved ones in the present and yet allows those who need to be informed and in touch to do so?
Rev. Peggy Muncie is an ordained Episcopal priest and has been a board certified chaplain since 1984. Her breadth of ministry includes campus, long-term care, aging, acute-care hospital, and outpatient chaplaincy. She is currently a staff chaplain at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in the New York City area, a HealthCare Chaplaincy partner.

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